We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!
I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?
Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:
God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.
This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.
If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?
Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:
Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?
In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.
If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.
This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.
Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.
Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:
I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.
Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”
What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?
If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.
The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third. The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.
This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).
The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.
More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.
Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.
Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
And the one sitting on the throne said,
I am making everything new!”
How to study the Bible series:
Which Bible version should I use?
The first three rules of Bible study
Why do we have to “study” the Bible?
Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story
You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches
Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches
Following the story: God and his people, part 1
The heart of the story: Jesus
Following the story: God and his people, part 2
Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?
Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law
The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us
Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom
The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back
Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]